The Skill of Self-Soothing

My cat Buster misses Aretha. Before she died, they didn’t always get along, but they loved chasing each other or having a “surprise” stand-off, each of them backing around each other, lifting a paw as if to strike. Both would growl threateningly. And then, just as quickly as it started, they each pretended to find something more interesting and walk away. After the stand-off, Buster would find a patch of sun or an air conditioning draft and take a nap.

Now that Aretha is gone, Buster can no longer soothe himself. He is awake mostBustertub of the day, following me and meowing. When I ask him what he needs, he either runs to the tub for water, or to the door to be let out. But it’s not what he wants. He’s lost the ability to soothe himself.  I pick him up and talk to him, stroke him, but it’s not enough.

“Self soothing” is a term used for babies who manage to go to sleep using their own methods. They don’t fight sleep, they don’t cry themselves to sleep, they talk to themselves and just calm themselves down until they fall asleep.

My son was not one of those babies, and neither was I. My mother always said I was afraid I’d miss something by sleeping. My son needed a bath, a story, a song, another story and then maybe, just maybe he would stay in bed. He fought sleep with the best of them. No self soothers in our family.

The cat loves a warm patio in the winter.

The cat loves a warm patio in the winter.

It took me years to learn self-soothing. To keep calm. To not choose “frantic.” To deliberately turn away from drama. It takes a lot of practice. I start by going silent and disconnecting from all electronic gear. While I’m still up, I go to the studio and write down all my worries. That way, they are captured and I don’t need to rewind and re-run them. The next morning, I tear them up, after reviewing them to make sure I still have them all.

After I write down the worries, it’s time to find either the prayer mala or my seed pod necklace and rub the surface. This simply motion, moving my fingers over a smooth surface, helps me focus on texture. I then think of calming scenes, of things that went well in the day, or, if I am fighting sleep, of a book, turning the pages. On each page, I “find” a word that is calming. Then I mentally turn the page. This exercise, which is a form of meditation or prayer, usually works. Sleep comes and finds me.

Buster’s anguish makes me sad for him. He hasn’t learned the skill, so I’m being a bit more patient with him. Because, God knows, self soothing is a life-long learning procedure.

Quinn McDonald finds traveling a barricade to self-soothing.